On May 1, President Barack Obama announced to a live television audience the death of Osama bin Laden. It was a seminal moment in both the nearly ten year old “War on Terror” and in American history. However, the days following bin Laden’s death have been filled with missteps that would make even a first-year public relations student’s stomach turn.
The key point in a crisis or important news situation is to have one voice and only that voice should speak. Therefore, no confusion would be caused. That hasn’t been the case post-bin Laden’s death. CIA Director Leon Panetta opened up a can of worms when he said to NBC News that, “ultimately,” a photo of the dead Al Qaeda leader would be shown. Panetta did several other interviews, including one with Time magazine. Senator Max Baucus, a Democrat from Montana, even stated that he expected a photograph would be released “fairly soon.”
On Wednesday, the White House decided NOT to release a photo because they didn’t want to be seen as showboating.
Panetta and Baucus’ words were only part of the issue. Another issue was the actual story of what happened the night bin Laden was killed. Initial reports were that one of bin Laden’s wives was used as a human shield and was killed. Then she wasn’t dead, only wounded. Even the press secretary admitted that he was even confused with all the stories going around.
White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that initial information about the raid on the terrorist leader’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan, was released “with great haste” to inform the public about the operation.
Information released with “great haste?” There’s the problem. As any PR pro knows, you never go to a news conference or media availability with potentially inaccurate information. And you certainly don’t give a statement with great haste. Too many voices in this situation have caused a ton of confusion and each spoken word has dug the White House in a deeper hole.
Am I being critical? Maybe. But during important events like this, I would rather see the White House wait and get it all right than rush and be mostly wrong. Unfortunately, the damage is done.